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Ao Haru Ride is a shoujo romance slice of life manga adaptation of the same name. It follows a story of a curious high-schooler girl wishing to find out what happened to her crush from three years ago and why did he change. It has "generic" and Kimi ni Todoke written all over it just from looking at the cover, and going deeper, it further proves this statement.
Futaba Yoshioka is your average 1st year in high school, who wishes to change herself and find new friends. She stumbles across her middle school crush, Kou Tanaka, who has changed his name to Kou Mabuchi. Shocked to find his personality completely changed, she starts testing her feelings for him, all in attempt to find out what happened to his old self.
The premise screams vanilla and generic all over the place, and it is just as it looks. It is your average shoujo romance with a double unrelated love triangle introduced later on. There is just nothing driving the romance forward and it uses cheap gimmicks in an attempt to move it further but it is really an uninteresting story once you get familiar with the characters. The main love triangle feels very artificial and is only there to make some progress, and the secondary love triangle isn't explored at all. The plot devices the anime introduce to kickstart an event are quickly forgotten. And, in the end, nothing happens. It is extremely predictable from the very start and not engaging. However, for an anime that is entirely character-driven, plot shortcomings aren't as important as in other shows.
The story follows a group of 5 teenagers. Starting from the worst, we have Murao, a silent and self-centered girl that later is not like that, for some reasons hardly mentioned. She is bland and uninteresting, but is a main piece of the second love triangle, as Kominato has a crush on her, and she has a crush on Kou's brother, Tanaka-sensei. Kominato himself is just a friendly and energetic guy, nothing else to say about him, he's not relevant at all. Yuuri is a shy but sweet girl who is a piece of the main love triangle, but it feels like she is just a plot device thrown in to escalate the plot. She has some sort of characterization and personality though, so she's not a bad character per se, but really underwhelming going against the main duo. Tanaka-sensei, Kou's brother, is an important character in Kou's personal drama and life and manages to have some good characterization in relatively short screen time.
And here we have our main duo, with the main protagonist Futaba going first. Futaba is a rather curious and gentle girl who has a crush on Kou but starts questioning her feelings after meeting him, after she got supposedly dumped by him several years ago, and circles around Kou to find out more about his changed personality. Futaba is not a great character by herself, as she is rather simple and two dimensional at most, but the best part about her is that she makes some great character interactions with Kou and the rest of the squad. There's nothing special about her, but she is the one that moves the story forward entirely by herself.
Kou is the best character in the series, surprisingly because he acts as a pseudo-plot device for Futaba. His personal drama and personality change is done very, very well and is the biggest highlight of the show. He has an "I don't care" mentality and acts like a typical jerk, but for some reason the group constantly tries to get along with him instead of leaving him alone. His story was predictable, but executed well after all, and is the only part of the show that didn't come off as bland and boring. (like the rest of the show)
For a character driven show, only two characters are relevant to the story at all. And that is really bad. At first you would have some sort of hope that you get to see a lot of interesting character interactions and different approaches to romance from different characters and how they react and develop from it but in reality, once you get familiar with the characters (around half of the show), all of them, except for Futaba and Kou (and plot device Yuuri) become completely irrelevant. And that is not how an anime should treat its cast. There was a limit to how much Kou and his story could have carried the rest of the show, and he alone couldn't quite reach the top.
For the comedy, it is simple reactional stuff over and over again. Something happens, characters react and you are supposed to laugh. Basic, but it actually works better here than other shows since you have some sort of attachment to characters and most of the comedy comes from at times funny interactions between Futaba and Kou. There's no fanservice to keep you interested, and although it doesn't ruin the narrative by being there, which is a good thing, the show actually got boring mid-way through so I don't know, maybe they should have had that? There's not so much slice of life to talk about, but Futaba's wish to not be labeled as an outcast once she experiences that in middle school is done quite decently and worth mentioning (along with Yuuri's situation, although she is just ruined later on)
There aren't any obvious writing mistakes, apart from the extreme overuse of wind in dramatic or tense situations, but I would like to mention that the show rather quickly and completely forgets a rather interesting plot device in "making the main cast the class representatives" which could have sparked some more interesting situations to happen. The anime didn't use the potential of some of the introduced elements and instead went along with the most generic and uninspiring way possible - a completely vanilla romance with no backdrops or anything else for you to care about. Didn't like the romance? Tough luck, there's nothing else for you here.
Animation and Sound:
There's nothing so much to talk about the animation, the art looks good but the chibi-looking face expressions were sometimes unnecessary and distracting, and made the show's comedy look like trying too hard.
The soundtrack is worth mentioning as having a few emotional pieces and rather well timed songs. It is easily the best technical aspect of the show, and you should look forward to the official soundtrack release. Another mention is Yuki Kaji in his role of Kou, which was executed outstandingly. I rather have him voicing these kind of characters rather than screamy kids (Eren, Satomi), cause here he can unfold his full potential.
Ao Haru Ride is just an extremely cliched and generic title. The execution is decent, however it could have been better, but there are just no other hooks or interesting elements or setting to keep you interested, and it gets boring half-way through unless you absolutely love the characters. Not everyone's the same though. If you like Shoujo romances, then it's definitely a watch. It is not a bad show, but it is not a good one either. It is right down the middle, and that's why it deserves the rating it gets.
Final Verdict - 5.3/10